SEOUL, South Korea – Military officers from the two Koreas will meet this week, the first official contact between the nations since Seoul's new, conservative president took office in February, South Korean officials said Wednesday.
The talks Thursday inside the Demilitarized Zone come at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea's move to restart its nuclear facilities and concern about communist leader Kim Jong Il's health. Kim, 66, has not been seen for weeks since reportedly suffering a stroke in mid-August.
North Korea's decision to stop disabling its Yongbyon nuclear reprocessing plant and to take steps to restore it — in violation of a 2007 pact — has alarmed regional powers. Chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill was in Pyongyang on Wednesday to try to salvage the international disarmament-for-aid deal.
In South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak marked Armed Forces Day by calling for a stronger military. North and South Korea remain technically at war.
"Only a strong military can defend our land, deter war and guarantee peace," he said in an address televised nationally.
South Korea's military "should be prepared to deal sternly with any forces that threaten our security," Lee said, without naming the country's communist adversary by name.
The 1950-53 Korean conflict that killed millions and left the peninsula divided ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Some 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to help defend the ally against threats from the North's 1.1 million-strong military, the world's fifth-largest.
Relations between the two Koreas warmed significantly following the first-ever summit of their leaders in 2000. A second summit — held exactly a year ago Thursday — also was hailed as another major step toward reconciliation.
But Lee, a conservative, has taken a hard-line stance on North Korea that has roused Pyongyang's ire. The regime branded him a "traitor" and "pro-American sycophant," and it suspended all government-level talks with the South after he was inaugurated.
Ties further deteriorated after a North Korean army guard fatally shot a South Korean tourist vacationing at a mountain resort in the North in July.
North Korea maintains that the tourist was shot because she entered a restricted military area and ignored warnings to halt.
The South responded by suspending all tours to the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort, cutting off a key source of hard currency for the cash-strapped country.
Last week, after months of no official contact, the North proposed holding military talks. The working-level talks will be led by army colonels from both sides, South Korean defense officials said.
Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun urged the Lee administration to rebuild the North's trust and to abide by the wide-ranging agreement signed at last year's summit.
"Lee Myung-bak's government is not respecting the declaration. As a result, inter-Korean relations are deadlocked again," he said in a speech Wednesday.